Last week Cédric Villani, the mathematician, Fields Medal winner, and French MP, presented a report to Emmanuel Macron entitled “For a meaningful artificial intelligence: towards a French and European strategy”. The cross-European aims of this report bring it into the remit of the European Scientist. Following the report, the French President made a number of statements and gave a long interview to the well-known Wired Magazine, an approach which follows in the footsteps of President Obama and his interview with Scott Dadich and Joi Ito .
This campaign aims to rank France and Europe in a highly strategic sector led by giant players such as the US and China. To give an idea of the scale of the commitment, France plans to invest 1.5 billion Euros in the sector by 2022. As a comparison, China will have invested 13 billion Euros in AI between 2016 and 2019 and the commercial giant Alibaba has announced it will devote 15 billion dollars to it. This initiative is noteworthy in that it goes to great lengths to counter any suggestion that the Old World is doomed to become a mere colony of the countries dominating the technology sphere. But while the kickstart and political awareness raising are welcome, we may still have questions about the actual capacity for action and the proposed solutions. And it’s not only a question of means. But before we get too deep into that aspect of the discussion, let’s look at the six main themes laid out in the report.
The first section, on “Economic” issues, raises questions on how to remain independent in the face of giant private players such as the GAFA or Big 4, or Batx (the Chinese web giants Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent et Xiaomi) Then a section on “Research” raises a key point: “French research is at the global forefront for its research in mathematics and artificial intelligence, but it is having difficulty transforming its scientific advances into industrial and economic applications” A subsection on training considers the possibility of upgrading vocational training to create resources in the context of the requirements of AI, and the Ecology and Ethics modules look at issues similar to those usually found in CSR policies. Finally, the last section on “Democracy” asks a fundamental question: “How can we avoid having one section of the population benefiting from AI while another section stands idly by?” This clearly demonstrates that the scope of this report is much wider than a simple list of economic factors to take into consideration while drafting a “blueprint for industry” It’s about standing out from the competition while also adding ideas about ethics or politics to the mix from the very start. But effect will these good intentions have?
As the blogger and expert Olivier Ezratty reminds us in a long think piece, there is a problem of scale: “How do you quantify or qualify world leadership? The report skirts round one unavoidable fact: it is virtually impossible to become a world leader in the digital field without a large and homogenous customer base like those the main players from the USA and China enjoy. France is too small and Europe too fragmented for that. How do you conquer those markets in what is often a race to the top? All we have is a vague desire to influence policy on data sharing at an international level.” So, what about the initiatives led by the EU? There’s a section on the Commission’s website devoted to the “Digital Single Market” which aims to “open up digital opportunities for people and business and enhance Europe’s position as a world leader in the digital economy” On March 9th, 2018, this body issued a press release entitled “Call for a High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence” The tasks of this Expert Group will be threefold: Advise the Commission, support it and propose ethical guidelines to it. It has however been announced that a comprehensive European AI strategy will be forthcoming in the coming months. But all this is very weak and Laurent Alexandre, expert in the field, is adamant: “Whether it’s a question of artificial intelligence or biological intelligence, France is seeing real progress. The rest of Europe is another picture however. In the European Union context, the level of thinking on the subject is rock bottom”
Moreover, this raises the question: isn’t there a huge paradox between the desire to launch ourselves into the race for AI to try to keep up with the global giants, while at the same time passing a law like the GDPR? A big part of AI draws upon the amassing of huge collections of databases and this is one of the main factors which has enabled the market leaders from the USA and China to come out ahead.
So, isn’t there a conflict of interest in wanting to stand out in the AI field – while attempting to see it through the prism of ethical principles? Could the mere mention of the latter really be enough to demonstrate a differentiating factor which would floor the competition? Antoine Petit, the head of the CNRS [The French National Centre for Scientific Research] at the #AIForHumanity conference, where the Villani commission report was launched, sowed the seeds of doubt: “Let’s not become ethics specialists while the Chinese and Americans become business specialists. Let’s not make out there is a global level playing field of ethical values!” Which leads economist Philippe Silberzahn to say : “By positioning AI in an ethical context, the report makes two mistakes: on the one hand it gives itself no opportunity to think through the ethics of AI correctly, because we will be thinking in a vacuum – we can only think by doing, and on the other hand it condemns France to watching the game from the side-lines.”
To conclude, the question that really arises is whether a report produced by one state can enable a country, or a Union of countries, to keep aboard the innovation bandwagon. There’s a distinct whiff of deja vu about this situation anyway. In 1984, while visiting France and meeting President Mitterrand, Steve Jobs gave his first interview on French television . He said, “What is necessary for the IT industry to grow in Europe and in France, is a strong software industry. Because software is the oil of the 80s and 90s, the decades of the computer revolution. It’s going to require hundreds of small software companies, and France could lead Europe in software. It has the brightest students, and a good command of technology. What we need to do is encourage young people to create software companies. We don’t want to own them ourselves. And the government shouldn’t try to control it either. They have to belong to those who are taking the risks.”
As Jobs highlights, risk-taking is an integral part of entrepreneurship. Can this state report, positioning ethics as a prerequisite for a technological development, allow France and Europe to catch up in the AI sector? Time will tell.